I’m the only foreigner on a bus from Chengdu to Langzhong Ancient Town, over three hours away north-east. A middle-aged lady, Wu Yahua, is next to me. Through WeChat translate, she says she’s going home to her family. Inundating me with pictures and a promotional clip of Langzhong, she says the city is one of China’s four greatest ancient towns and there’s so much good food to taste.
‘Surrounded by mountains on four sides and by water on three sides. In ancient times, it was said to be a land of geomantic omens.’ I translate from Mandarin. No idea what geomantic means. ‘In summer, when the rainy season comes, a faint cloud floats on the river, and you seem to live in a fairytale.’
Growing up on a smalltown-Australian beach, my first reference experience of China was when my friends and I would play in the sand near the shore. We’d build castles, forts, bury each other’s bodies under the surface, only exposing our heads. And, of course, we’d ‘dig to China!’ China didn’t mean anything yet. A figurative, folklore-kind of a place like the lost city of Atlantis.
My next engagement with China was also unintentional, spending days and days playing the Dynasty Warriors series on PlayStation2. Assuming the game was fictional, I was enraptured by the Chinese warriors’ individual and collective story-lines. Obsessed.
The Han Empire collapses after the Yellow Turban Rebellion at the turn of the 3rd Century AD (184 – 205 AD). The Allied Forces defeat the ‘traitor’ Dong Zhuo at Hu Lao Gate, and eliminate the world’s fiercest warrior Lu Bu. The Three Kingdoms – Wei, Wu and Shu – remain deadlocked, fighting regularly until around 280 AD when all kingdoms have collapsed, beginning the Jin Dynasty’s unification of China.
As a kid who’d only observed and used basic strategy in sports like football and cricket, these warriors had become my heroes. I remember during the Boxing Day Test (Australia’s most important annual cricket match) my uncle asked me to stop playing my fighting game and turn the TV back to cricket. Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting, my secondary hero, was out-thinking and dominating the opposition.
Wei Kingdom’s leader Cao Cao inspired me through mobilising and inspiring his troops at large scale, leading with ruthlessness, tenacity and transparency. Yet, he displayed benevolence to his inferiors without making a big deal of it – like someone doing kind deeds and not posting on social media afterwards. This view solidified recently when I watched the 95-episode series of Three Kingdoms (2010), based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel.
The series introduced the future founder of Wu, Sun Quan, as a nine-year-old. He nominated himself to solely recover his father Sun Jian’s body in Jing Province, where archers had ambushed and killed him. Sun Jian was posthumously regarded as the Father of Wu although the empire hadn’t yet birthed during his lifetime. Watching Sun Quan and older brother Sun Ce grieve in uncontrollable distress in front of their army made me break down in tears too. Closing my eyes, another video played without my choice.
A few months before my ninth birthday, I was staring at my dad’s corpse in a funeral parlour. Crying with the horror that no film in that genre could ever replicate. This terror created a more cultivated understanding of the world prematurely, about which many grown-ups underestimate and patronise children until they’ve come of age. What would children know, right? Mum gently suggested giving Dad one last kiss on the cheek. I couldn’t do it. This wasn’t him anymore. Coldness emanated from his skin and made me shiver.
Meanwhile, Sun Quan, at the same age, showed the bravery I never had. Risking his life for the most influential man he’d ever know, vulnerable all alone in enemy lands.
The founding emperor of Shu, Liu Bei, mostly epitomised loyalty, kindness and brotherhood. In a peach garden with his earliest and most trusted warriors Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, they swore an oath to protect each other through life and to die together. He built his kingdom on the pretence of restoring the Han Dynasty and treating the common people with kindness. It surfaced that he was more concerned with the idea of virtue, alike Christian schools and churches. It’s easy to hide personal ambition under the guise of resurrecting China to its former glory.
As Liu Bei gained more territory, he became less gracious to his followers. In the Battle of Changban (Hubei Province), 208 AD, Shu’s valiant warrior Zhao Yun thwarted a mass of enemies with a spear in one arm, and Liu Bei’s infant son Liu Shan in the other. Liu Bei responded by throwing the baby – his future successor – on the ground and scolding Zhao Yun for risking his life for a mere infant. In later years, Liu Bei’s arrogance by continuing to invade enemies at all costs, ignoring renowned strategist Zhuge Liang’s advice to not attack Wu, led to his downfall.
If Cao Cao was Amsterdam, shamelessly displaying his intentions, flaws and undersides, then Liu Bei was one of many modern cities: charming in showing face, but what hidden ambitions and corruptions lie within?
Perhaps this is why, today, China reveres Shu and its chief generals like Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. They represent not necessarily what China is, but its face and what it aspires to be. Temples, shrines, gardens and mausoleums are purpose-built throughout China and beyond, worshipping these men as deities.
We cross the multi-laned bridge into Langzhong. Yahua asks if I need a guide. No, I’m capable. The bus station is five kilometres from the old town so we share a taxi. Passing the ancient town, I wonder why we haven’t turned off.
Zhang Fei governed this city a while before his inferiors slayed him. I wanted to simply to walk in the presence of a childhood hero’s ghost. Langzhong is still considered Zhang Fei’s city, known for Zhang Fei niurou – dried beef.
At Tenwang Pavillion it seems this lady wants to guide me anyway. Japanese cherry blossoms line the square at the bottom. Yahua stops after a small part of the climb. I continue up steep steps. Puffing at the top, I’m met by a joyous family eating mandarins. A stone-powder sky overlooks the clearly visible waves of mountain peaks and dips. No fairytale-like floating clouds sit atop the green river, though.
A taxi to town. When we stop in a quiet commercial street, Yahua’s husband takes her suitcase. On a chair in his bathroom-hardware store, I wonder what’s happening. They talk with their two friends, walking to and fro the back entrance. The old town is nearby. 4 pm. I tell Yahua I want to go.
‘Wait 10 minutes.’
On the back of Yahua’s scooter, we ride through quiet streets, meet two traffic light intersections and arrive at a gate to the old town.
In narrow alleys, trees bridge the gap between millennia-old charcoal tiled awnings. Each tree is an opportunity not only for attaching lights, but facial recognition cameras. The stone ground is impeccably clean. Locals stroll through, gazing with curiosity and smiling back.
At Zhang Fei Temple’s ticket office, Yahua speaks to the attendant. My AliPay QR code is ready on my phone to pay. But Yahua hands over 50 RMB before I’ve any idea what’s happening. Why’s she so kind and doing all this? She says she’ll wait on the street.
A sign inside:
People here built a pavilion to memory Zhangfei famous as “loyal and brave general”, for his braveness and loyalty after he died.
In the museum section, paintings portray Zhang Fei posing with a long spear, speaking assertively with Liu Bei and Guan Yu, moving athletically in fields, and writing on a scroll. Armour, allegedly his, is contained within glass. A metal carving of his horse. Life-sized figures of the three heroes. Everybody takes photos.
Outside at the shrine, Zhang Fei, perched in a golden robe, stares down, judging me for all my wrongdoings.
In the courtyard is his massive tomb which you can walk around. A shoulder-height brick wall circles it. Trees and shrubs protrude from the tomb.
A sign says in 221 AD Zhang Fei’s ‘mutinous officers’ Zhang Da and Fan Qiang murdered him. For over 1700 years global visitors have offered sacrifice to ‘admire loyalty and bravery.’ But the sign conveniently leaves out an important fact to protect Zhang Fei’s honour.
In Three Kingdoms Liu Bei demanded the alcoholic Zhang Fei to stop drinking so much wine and quit beating his men needlessly if he wanted to hold control. Zhang Fei agreed but ultimately didn’t follow through.
You could argue that Zhang Fei’s inferiors were justified in killing their leader in retaliation to constant assault. Zhang Fei also abducted the niece of Wei’s Xiahou Yuan during a battle, making her his wife.
Is Zhang Fei, then, really the hero that China portrays him as? Are we judged by who we are at the end of our lives? Does this actually make him a villain or coward? Are his subordinates heroes for having the courage to defend themselves against injustice? And are we fit to pass judgement on the abduction through the lens of modern standards of morality?
In the Battle of Changban, Cao Cao pursued Liu Bei’s forces. With only 20 cavalry as rearguard in the woods, Zhang Fei ordered them to move erratically, suggesting greater numbers. Standing at a bridge with his spear, Zhang Fei demanded Cao Cao’s forces to fight him to death. Tricked into thinking a large ambush awaited behind Zhang Fei, Cao Cao’s unit retreated.
This is only one example of Zhang Fei’s heroics. Again, is his status as a hero still valid despite assaulting his subordinates for potentially no other reason than to demonstrate power? No record exists of Cao Cao or Sun Quan committing unwarranted atrocities to their people, yet they don’t hold the same fame, cultural hero or deity status.
Zhang Fei’s faults aside, he’s a hero. Virtuous or non-virtuous people don’t exist, only tones of grey. Heroes don’t always necessarily do the right thing, but act when needed to serve or protect, or to confront their fears, even if personal ambition clouds their motivations. At large Zhang Fei demonstrated courage, loyalty and selflessness, the astounding extent of which won him many battles and was the primary reason for his fame.
China doesn’t need to hide its heroes’ flaws. It would give people permission to be imperfect while striving to face fears, pursue dreams and help others.
Along the riverside street, painters decorate a wall with images of ancient scholars. The river is green and clear. Yahua gives me Zhang Fei niurou. The beef is chewy, spicy and seriously tasty. While chewing, I see Zhangfei Beer signs on the street. His name and face is on everything.
I find a lodge, an old mansion with a tranquil courtyard. Governors lived here centuries ago. Plants. A water feature. People playing mah-jong. Yahua leaves, saying to tell her if I need anything. I open the window. Old tile roofs are reachable. Wiggling a tile, I realise how easily I could destruct artefacts with thousands of years of history. Part of me wants to.
Wandering around again I’m clearly the only outsider. School kids ambush me, asking my name and where I’m from. On the boardwalk, two young women smile at me. They offer nuts and I hold out the niurou.
The sun retreats behind the mosque, leaving a light pink trail in the clouds. In the central courtyard, the Islamic moon symbol is hoisted above the building, juxtaposed with a Chinese flag. I don’t know if it’s ironic or proposes coexistence. Outside, a Hui Muslim man cleans his small restaurant which appears the same premises as his home. He comes out.
‘Salaam,’ I say.
‘Salaam!’ He wears a big grin.
Through Google Translate I ask to take his photo. He pulls a crazy face with his tongue out. His wife and daughter appear, curious.
‘Xiè xiè,’ I say and shake his hand. Walking off, I wonder who this man’s heroes are. If he worships Zhang Fei or only God.
I join Yahua, her husband, their two married friends, and the latter’s seven-year-old daughter Mia for hot pot.
Yahua’s husband asks what’s my Chinese name.
My pronunciation is unclear so I type on my phone. As he reads, his face animates and he delivers an inspired monologue, presumably joking about me and the Shu strategist. Of course, I’ve no idea what he’s actually saying. He pours oversized shot glasses with the large, low-strength beer. Typical Chinese practice.
‘Gān bēi!’ We clink each other’s glasses and skoll, continuing as we eat sticks of spicy pork, beef, fish and vegetables.
The next morning I walk across the pontoon bridge to climb Jinping Mountain. Up here, ancient poets, artists and scholars honed their crafts. Today painters line the mountain like ants, following the footsteps of their heroes of yesteryears. At the top, the sky’s blueness and clean air amaze me. A welcomed change in China. A group of Chinese girls want a photo with me.
‘Yì bǎi quai,’ I joke, asking for 100 RMB. These girls are art students, living in Chengdu, but don’t have their equipment on the mountain. ‘What kind of artist are you if you’re not painting among the others?’ I tease one.
Down the mountain, a pop-up stage presents the three brothers in cartoon form. Liu Bei laughs. Guan Yu sips a bowl of soup. Two other bowls on the table while Zhang Fei gulps wine.
Back in town, with two large Zhang Fei Beer cans, I ride along the waterfront and find a shady spot. As I sip the clearly-rebranded standard Chinese beer, two girls pose in selfies. One wears a puffy white dress with analogue clock pictures, and a traditional white headpiece, I guess. She wants a photo. We take a few.
As the can depletes, I wonder, which heroes stand the test of our entire lifetimes? Sporting heroes may consume that space for a moment. Cultural heroes come and go, or sit with only minor significance in the collective consciousness. And many people aren’t religious.
My mind takes me back to Australia, eighteen months ago in 2017.
On the way to Tweed Valley Cemetery, trees arching from either side enclose the winding road. Glint pierces through the gaps. Passing red dirt fields I think of my two-day sweet potato farmer career out here. Orange horizons at the still of dawn, the same colour staining my shoes and car’s interior by day’s end. Today the sky’s overcast in a clichéd way given my destination. A controlled blaze burns in the valley.
I don’t really get emotional whenever I come here. It’s hard when the place is a botanical garden. Birds breezing in trees. Trimmed hedges. Rainbow petals. Here, the dead are celebrated. But, searching for Dad, up and down the hill and back and forth the rows, inspecting the names on each gravestone, I don’t care about his neighbours – others’ heroes – and their battles. I just want to find Dad. When I finally find his grave, I’m surprised the slab is in such good condition after fifteen years and I realise it’s been years since I’ve come here. Memories return.
Dad arriving home from the office after dark, my sister and I wrap our small selves around a leg each. He heaves forward like we weigh a tonne. I wonder if he’d have any regrets, or would live differently if he knew when his clock would stop. If he’d still have kids. If he’d work less. Walking back to my car I’m sure he’d be proud of me but I wish I were as good a person as him.
Passing a valley of Christmas trees, I ponder how there’s no fence at this cemetery surrounding the sycamores and eucalypts. This openness invites us to reflect on the skeletons of our past. These unknown heroes are upheld, not brushed off as spooky reminders of our impending mortality. Like Zhang Fei’s tomb in the courtyard, flora growing out, everyone’s welcomed to trace the circumference.
The flame on the horizon isn’t visible anymore. A cloud of smoke has swelled and spread across the fields like an angry mob. It’s unclear where the grey sky begins, at what point the smoke ends, and the mist hovers in between. But everything makes sense.
As I’m finishing the second can of Zhang Fei Beer, the shade has drifted away. The open sun warms my face. I jump back on my bike and chew the Zhang Fei niurou and ride on past the gazing pedestrians who probably think, ‘Who’s this lǎowài, so far from home?’ and cycling faster I break a sweat, people playing mah-jong barely notice me, a border collie barks with the same kind of Langzhong friendliness, and a true rendition of Zhang Fei manifests in real time, this is actually him, dismounting his horse in the middle of the crowded square, his massive figure more imposing than I’d ever imagine, thick in armour, and on his hands and knees he begs his people for forgiveness, please let me live again, I’ll make it up to you, I’ll be the world’s most gracious emperor, and as he stands he makes eye contact with me, no blinking, but in his dark brooding eyes I don’t see images of his battlefield glory or bottomless wine and feasts with royalty, I see pain and regret and love and loss, the man not the warrior or deity, and my reflection faces me, vulnerable, just me and Zhang Fei, two fallible men, not too different after all, one wanting redemption, the other trying to make something of this life, I almost offer his horse niurou, but as he jumps back on his steed and laughs victoriously, gallops through the empty square and speeds away and vanishes, I realise I’ve been staring at a statue of a mounted Zhang Fei the entire time, so I ride the bike again, down the boardwalk, smile into the pressing wind and don’t stop pedalling until Zhang Fei’s laugh recedes into the faint cloud floating on the river.
Photo by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)